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Holy Book Learning

Americans are shockingly illiterate when it comes to religions -- including their own. That's a problem in today's world, a BU professor argues. But it won't be easily fixed.

Stephen Prothero, a professor of religious studies and chair of the religion department at Boston University, thinks he may have found something that conservative Christians and liberal secularists can agree on: It's not a good thing if students, whether religious or not, think Joan of Arc was Noah's wife -- or stare blankly when a teacher (or President Bush or Hillary Clinton) refers to a "Good Samaritan."

In his new book, "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn't," Prothero lays out the evidence of what he considers Americans' paradoxical, and troubling, religious ignorance. According to various surveys conducted since 1990, half of all Americans can't name even one of the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), the cornerstone of the New Testament. A majority can't name the first book of the Bible (Genesis). This suggests a curious unfamiliarity with a text that two-thirds of Americans believe contains the answers to all of life's questions.

This ignorance about basic religious and Biblical matters crosses all sorts of sectarian lines. In a survey from 2000, 60 percent of evangelicals, but only 51 percent of Jews, answered yes when asked whether Jesus was born in Jerusalem (the New Testament says he was born, as we're reminded by all those Christmas carols, in Bethlehem). Less surprising, students do even worse when asked almost anything about religions besides Christianity. Prothero has replicated these findings in surveys of his own students at BU.

For Prothero, there's a lot more at stake than basic cultural literacy of the E.D. Hirsch variety, though that's an important part of his argument. ("I am convinced," he writes, "that one needs to know something about the world's religions in order to be truly educated.") And his concern is not morality, though he believes it's possible that students who are more knowledgeable about the Bible "would have smarter discussions about moral questions," as he put it in a recent interview. Strengthening morality, he says, "is not my issue."

Instead, it's about citizenship. Because religion isn't going away -- on the contrary, it's booming -- and because it is central to so many of the most important issues facing us today, knowledge of religion matters more than ever. "You need religious literacy," he writes, "in order to be an effective citizen." When biblical teachings are invoked by politicians and activists on issues from abortion and same-sex marriage to poverty and global warming, how, he asks, can a person engage in political debate without at least some fluency in the language being spoken?

"For me," Prothero says, "the hope is that we can have more and better political conversations. My hope is that a huge portion of the American population won't feel disengaged from political debates because they don't know enough about religion."

. . .

Unfortunately, for Prothero, religious literacy has been held hostage in the culture wars between Christian activists, who believe nothing short of returning "Judeo-Christian" moral instruction to the schools will stop America's moral slide, and secular activists wary of any mention of religion by public-school teachers.

Prothero plunges straight into this thicket. He proposes that high schools require one Bible 101 course (given the Bible's particular importance in European and American history) and one on world religions. These courses would, he stresses, abide by guidelines the Supreme Court has laid down: They would be objective and not "devotional."

Prothero's proposal dovetails with the agendas of several other organizations. The Bible Literacy Project, based in Front Royal, Virginia, has produced two reports, with funding from the Templeton Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports efforts to bridge the divide between religious and secular culture -- one on what teenagers actually know about the Bible and one on what teachers at various levels think they should know. Yet it finds that only 8 percent of American schools teach the Bible in any way.

On the Bible Literacy Project's advisory board sit such leading scholars as Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago and Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School. Its proposed curriculum, which includes a textbook called "The Bible and Its Influence" and a Bible of the student's choice, has been praised both by the conservative evangelical leader Charles Colson and Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt.

The Project in Religion and Secondary Education at the Harvard Divinity School has also worked to make clear to teachers and administrators that teaching about religion in high schools is appropriate and desirable. It is co-sponsoring a conference next fall at which teachers can learn from scholars about the latest thinking on religion, and offers joint degrees in theology and education.

So are we all on board with Prothero's project? Well, the middle ground of non-devotional Bible education may be more controversial than he thinks. The National Council for Biblical Curriculum in Public Schools, another group advocating "non-devotional" Bible courses, has attacked the Bible Literacy Project as the tool of secularists. Language on its website speaks of "reclaiming our families" while a letter posted on that same site, from the televangelist John Hagee, refers to the statements about theology in the Bible Literacy Project textbook as "wolves in sheep's clothing" -- and equates discussion of other religions' creation stories with a celebration of polytheism.

Prothero says such fighting is a fringe phenomenon: "There is more conflict in theory than in practice." Still, this remains a contentious field. Daniel Mach, a lawyer in Washington with the ACLU specializing in church-state issues, says Supreme Court precedent certainly leaves room for teaching the Bible in a non-devotional way. In practice, however, "the problem is that it is rarely taught objectively."

Daniel Dennett, the Tufts philosopher and noted defender of atheism, has made the case that a course on world religions ought to be mandatory for high school students, given the enormous influence of faith. "The toxic forms of religion thrive only under conditions in which the ignorance of the young can be enforced," he writes in an e-mail message. But, he adds, "a class that only taught the Bible would not be appropriate at all. It is important for students to compare the different religions frankly."

And it's not only church-state watchdogs and atheists who are skeptical about whether teachers can pull off the non-devotional tightrope walk. "My own sense," says Mark Noll, an acclaimed historian at Notre Dame who is an evangelical Christian, "is that the Bible is a pretty explosive book. If students read it carefully, they'd be changed in a way that public schools couldn't handle -- and appropriately so. TChristopher Shea's column appears biweekly in Ideas. E-mail